By Anderson Haigler
LAKE ELSINORE, CALIF. — Those close to Arissa Tovar, those that have seen the catcher play before, aren’t surprised when she shows poise in big situations and rises to the occasion when her team needs her most.
So on an afternoon that saw the Firecrackers Brashshear 18U backstop guide her pitching staff through seven innings of one-run ball in the sweltering desert heat, provide plus-defense behind the dish, and deliver a game-winning RBI single to lift the Firecrackers over the Love The Game Lions 18U by a score of 2-1, you’ll have to forgive head coach Sean Brashear if he saw this one coming.
“I’m not surprised it was her who got the big hit,” said Brashear after the last out. “She’s our captain, that kid’s been in our program for five years, she’s always been clutch. She’s great behind the plate, she’s great in the dugout, and she’s great in life.”
Tovar’s game-winning hit, which came in the sixth inning of Thursday afternoon’s matchup at Rosetta Canyon Community Park as part of the TC Nationals tournament, punctuated a taut, tense affair that was as well-played as it was close. Though runs were at a premium on the “Red” field in Lake Elsinore, Firecrackers first baseman and Washington commit Brooklyn Carter wasted no time in getting the scoring started for her team, singling in the top of the first before she advanced to second on a passed ball, stole third, then scored on an errant throw from Lions catcher Brooklynn Pettis.
“She’s super aggressive (on the base paths) and looking to take advantage of misplays from defenders,” Brashear described of Carter’s prowess running the bases. “She’s the type of baserunner that we’re always gonna look to run, we’re always gonna look to get her in motion.”
The Firecrackers’ slim, one-run lead held fast until the bottom of the fifth inning, when the Lions tied the score at a run apiece after UC San Diego commit Alexa DeMarse — who had reached base after contributing a clutch, pinch-hit double deep into the left field gap — came in to score on a wild pitch. The newly tied ballgame set the stage for Tovar’s big hit — and a chance for the Firecrackers to take the lead for good.
Fullerton commit Payton Kelly doubled to lead off the top of the sixth, then Alexa Sams (UC Santa Barbara) reached on an error. Kelly and Sams each advanced on a passed ball to put runners on second and third for Tovar, who laced a line drive into left field to plate Kelly and give the Firecrackers a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish.
“I knew that they were probably going to come inside on me because I had runners on the left side, so I just had the idea of anything in that zone, to get it elevated,” said Tovar, who is committed to the University of San Diego. “And then a line drive came out of it, so that was pretty good. You get nervous, but then at the same time with my teammates, they make it fun…the pressure like that makes you a better athlete.”
Key to keeping the game close down the stretch and preserving that 2-1 advantage were a pair of stellar outings from the Firecrackers’ pitching staff. Though the Lions’ Emma Falen and Ashleigh Dendas (Fullerton) were impressive as they combined for seven innings of two-run ball, their counterparts in North Dakota commit Morgan McConnell and Utah commit Brooklyn Carreon were dominant when it mattered most, setting forth outings of four and three innings apiece as they teamed up to keep the Lions off the board.
McConnell got things done by relying on her dropball, a pitch Tovar described as one of the best she’s seen in her career behind the plate, while for Carreon, it was just a matter of finding the groove while spotting up her off-speed pitches.
“After the first batter, I settled in and I felt confident,” said Carreon, who posted three scoreless innings in the circle to end the game as she weaved her way in and out of trouble. “I have a great defense, so as long as I keep it down, I can give them easy plays.”
All told, it was a satisfying win for the Firecrackers in a game that to their head coach, prepares them well for things to come.
“Like I told our group right now, these are the type of games that we prep for, that we’re trying to be involved in … super proud of the girls, it was a close game, nip and tuck, and at any given moment any of those kids over there could have hit a home run or make a big play…it was a good win for us,” Brashear added.